The Mothers of Invention: Women Trailblazers in Abstraction

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"Affinities for Abstraction: Women Artists on the East End, 1950–2020," installation view, Parrish Art Museum. Photo by Jenny Gorman.

This past week brought a first to American politics. On April 28, during a speech to the nation in a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., seated directly behind President Joe Biden were the two most powerful women in the country — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“Madame speaker. Madame vice president,” began the president. “No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time.”

Given the importance of the moment, it’s perhaps fitting that last weekend the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill opened a new exhibition that honors women for being trailblazers in another male-dominated arena — abstract art.

Organized by the museum’s chief curator, Alicia G. Longwell, and on view through July 25, “Affinities for Abstraction: Women Artists on Eastern Long Island, 1950-2020,” features the work of more than 40 female artists, both past and present, all of whom have spent time living and working on the East End.

Though the exhibition was assembled fairly quickly by Longwell after a James Brooks retrospective planned for this summer was postponed until 2022, Longwell doesn’t feel the shortened timeline diminishes its impact in any way. She attributes that to the power of the more than three dozen female artists whose work represents multiple generations of abstract painting.

“Affinities for Abstraction: Women Artists on the East End, 1950–2020,” installation view, Parrish Art Museum. Photo by Jenny Gorman.

The exhibition’s jumping off points are five groundbreaking female artists — Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell — the mothers of invention, so to speak, who worked their way into the men’s club of Abstract Expressionism in the mid-20th century. The art forays of those five women is documented in Mary Gabriel’s book “Ninth Street Women,” which takes its title from the “Ninth Street Art Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture,” a New York City show that took place in spring 1951 — exactly 70 years ago. Of the 72 participating artists in that show, 11 were women, including the five mentioned above who spent some, if not most, of their time on the East End.

But the exhibition is not limited to the early days of abstraction, and also included is work by subsequent generations of female abstract artists, including 21 who are still living.

“I think it could’ve been interesting with just the five, but I think it’s much more interesting with artists working today,” said Longwell. “With the founding practitioners all having spent a bit of time here — whether they came here for a weekend, season or a lifetime — they were coming here to experience this extraordinary area and the gathering of artists here that continues to this day.

“There’s a history and tradition and camaraderie and it still goes on,” she added. “They are all drawn to the natural beauty, and that’s why a lot of artists came out during the pandemic and stayed out here.”

For Longwell, this exhibition also provides a unique opportunity to examine abstraction through a broader lens focused on works by female artists — both then and now. While there were definitely challenges for those first female abstract painters, Longwell says there was probably more camaraderie between the sexes than one might think, given that, beginning in the 1930s, both genders were hired to work side by side on WPA art projects and they often studied under the same mentors.

But still, she notes, the men were typically the stars who were promoted and publicized in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Many female artists, like Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, married painters whose careers eclipsed their own and they often relegated their own work to the backseat in order to further their husbands’ ambitions.

Elaine de Kooning (American, 1920–1989) “Sun Wall,” 1986–1987. Oil on canvas, 98″ x 132″. Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, N.Y., Gift of Domna Stanton.

“There was the 8th Street Club where artists met to talk and women were finally let in the club,” said Longwell. “Most women were not that interested in joining. Jane Wilson wrote about a couple meetings and realized the women got up and made the coffee, and it reminded her of church gatherings.”

The fact is, Longwell notes, when it came to Abstract Expressionism, men were just more saleable.

“The perception was men were more serious, and as a result, their work was taken more seriously, despite the fact that many of the women artists didn’t have families and did focus on their careers,” she said. “But once that generation waned, all bets were off. Women in the late ’60s and early ’70s came out of post-minimalism, there was much more of a level playing field. Men didn’t dominate in the same way as they had with the Ab Ex painters when a lot of women didn’t come to the fore.”

While in those early days of the abstract art movement, women may not have been all that keen to walk into a New York City bar or a club dominated by men in order to talk about their work. On the East End, the post-work place to gather was often at the beach, where there were fewer societal constraints or gender expectations.

“I think there probably was socializing and, for better or worse, you could go to a party every night here if you wanted, but you also had that camaraderie and could meet at certain beaches with certain artists,” said Longwell. “You didn’t have to go to a bar. If you were in the studio all day, you could take a break and go to a beach. They enjoyed the pleasures of seeing friends by the ocean.”

Though times have changed and women artists don’t face nearly the same gender challenges and issues that earlier generations did, Longwell notes it’s still important to stay focused.

“We’re in a great age of reckoning, which we’ve seen all to the good, but biases are still there and there’s always work to be done,” Longwell said. “I think young women are certainly empowered now. They know they have to be independent.”

“Affinities for Abstraction: Women Artists on Eastern Long Island, 1950-2020” runs through July 25 at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. On Saturday, May 7, at 6 p.m. chief curator Alicia G. Longwell will speak with artists featured in the exhibition in a hybrid in-person/online program that will take place in the Lichtenstein Theater to a limited audience and will also be livestreamed. Registration is required at parrishart.org.

Participating Artists: Mary Abbott (1921–2019), Marina Adams (b. 1960), Victoria Barr (b. 1937), Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941), Lynda Benglis (b. 1941), Nanette Carter (b. 1954), Louisa Chase (1951–2016), Elaine de Kooning (1920–1989), Natalie Edgar (b. 1932), Perle Fine (1908–1988), Audrey Flack (b. 1931), Connie Fox (b. 1925), Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), Jane Freilicher (1924–2014), Gertrude Greene (1904–1956), Grace Hartigan (1922–2008), Mary Heilmann (b. 1940), Virva Hinnemo (b. 1976), Sheree Hovsepian (b. 1974), Jacqueline Humphries (b. 1960), Michi Itami (b. 1938), Virginia Jaramillo (b. 1939), Gina Knee (1898-1982), Lee Krasner (1908–1984), Agnes Martin (1912-2004), Mercedes Matter (1913–2001), Joan Mitchell (1925–1992), Louise Nevelson (1899–1988), Ruth Nivola (1917–2008), Charlotte Park (1918–2010), Betty Parsons (1900-1982), Howardena Pindell (b. 1943), Dorothea Rockburne (b. 1932), Dorothy Ruddick (1925–2010), Anne Ryan (1889–1954), Sonja Sekula (1918–1963), Amy Sillman (b. 1955), Joan Snyder (b. 1940), Pat Steir (b. 1940), Hedda Sterne (1910–2011), Michelle Stuart (b.1933), Sue Williams (1954).

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